Reflections by Matthew Bishop

I’m not sure where to begin a reflection of the entire four-month period when I visited six countries and lived in three different apartments throughout all of Italy. I’m glad to be home, yes—but it’s very unusual not to be speaking Italian and extremely unusual to realize that I can’t speak Italian, because no one else understands it here. It’s not entirely difficult adjusting, other than that. It’s plain in some way, but I realize, after so much traveling, how to observe our own culture, the way people live here in Ohio and what distinguishes them from other people. After seeing so much of Europe for so long through the eyes of a tourist, it’s hard to get out of that mindset. In some ways, my life in Ohio seems distant and unconnected after being so far removed from the culture I was familiar with, from all my family and all my friends, and after being immersed in a world of different languages and distinctive cultural groups clustered into thousands of communities across Europe. But it’s only been a few days since I’ve gotten back here, and I don’t think that feeling will last very long.

            As far as what I’ve learned – well, I definitely want to travel more. I want to see the rest of the world—all the regions which I haven’t visited (everything outside of Europe). But I would never be able to compare Venice with Ohio unless I had a great network of friends and family there. That’s what really makes a home. Working abroad is a possibility, and I would love very much to see the rest of the world. But when I think about it, I missed Ohio when I lived in Italy more than I now miss Italy, living in Ohio. The plus side of constantly moving and relocating my home was that I got to see and to really know a very large part of Europe. The downside was that I was never in one place long enough, or with any one local person long enough, to really make myself feel connected to the people and the communities in the way that I feel connected to the people I know in the States.

            When I think hard, I suppose I realize that I could do virtually anything with my life. I met a very large cast of interesting characters in Europe. I met a man at a bar in Rome who had trained as a physician in Colorado, then became a ski bum, then moved back to Rome and was a paramedic. I met a girl on the plane, as I was flying to Rome at the very beginning, who was moving to Rome, like I would be soon—but she was doing her entire undergraduate education there. I met a girl from China who was going to university in the states, and studying abroad in Italy. I met a host of Jewish rabbis-in-training in the New Ghetto of Venice, who came from New York City—but then just decided to come to Venice to become a rabbi to mix things up. I met hostelkeepers all across Europe from all over the world. I learned that in Denmark, the government pays you for a “gap year”, whenever you want, for you to take time off and figure out what you want to do with your life. I think this is a concept which America would do well to take on—once this whole recession deal blows over anyways, right?

             I learned that I feel very much at home when I am constantly traveling—I adapt well to new environments and I feel just as at home in a train or car as I do in a house. However, I never realized how important the element of a good, established network of friends was until I was separated from them and thrown in a school with only eight other students, and into a country where I knew absolutely no one.

            If you want to have fun, you have to make fun. The world will not be fun for you—I suppose I learned that also. I wouldn’t have had a very good time if I hadn’t put all the effort into planning each weekend and each break to explore Europe. I wouldn’t have enjoyed it if I hadn’t made myself just go outside and walk by myself, because that’s really when you discover some of the most amazing places. I wouldn’t have made nearly as many memories if I had never gone out to the pubs by myself on random nights, because that’s when I met some of the most interesting characters (including a competition European darts team and an ex-metal band which toured across Europe – and bought me a whole bottle of rum and played me some of their songs!). You often can’t rely on other people to have fun, brutal as that may sound, because sometimes (especially when there are nine students total) you find yourself alone. If you don’t get out and do things during that time, you’ll miss out on some of your very best opportunities.

            I am trying to find Italian language clubs at my university and Italian restaurants and book stores around my house. The culture and language has become a part of who I am, and I’m trying not to lose it—it just feels better to be able to understand another culture, to be aware of their history, to speak their language. There is a complex around America, I think, which people are largely unaware of because we do not really understand other cultures. That complex, simply, is the unawareness of other cultures—and so the thought, passive and subliminal as it may be, is that Americans do things the “regular” way and, therfore, their customs are not very worthy of mention or study, and other cultures do things the unusual way and so merit the study of anthropologists the world over. When you see someone on television kissing their friend goodbye, for example, assuming they are Spanish or Italian or of one of the many other cultures where this is regular, you wouldn’t think much of it: you would memorize it as a fact. But to understand the fundamental difference in friendships and relationships which makes this acceptable in one place and unacceptable in another is different entirely. Returning from Italy, I saw our own culture as the unusual one, and for the first time in my life, I really noticed it.

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